With eyes on Gaza, violations against West Bank journalists multiply

A mural on the separation wall in Bethlehem in tribute to Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead by the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Jenin. Photo by Dan Palraz via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

More than 100 journalists in Gaza have been killed by Israel since it launched its deadly war on the strip, following Hamas’s incursion into Israeli soil on October 7, 2023. Reporters Without Borders has filed multiple complaints with the International Criminal Court to investigate “intentional homicides” of several Gazan journalists.

But with all eyes on Gaza, violations against journalists in the West Bank have multiplied. Israel now ranks sixth among the top countries for jailed journalists, tied with Iran. Over the past seven months, 52 journalists have been detained, all but two in the West Bank, the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA) told Global Voices. Nearly all are being held without trial or charge under Israeli military law.

Women journalists are among those detained. “Israeli forces don’t differentiate between women and men as journalists in the field,” Aziza Nofal, a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah, told Global Voices. A freelance journalist with Al Jazeera English, she also works with Reporters Without Borders to document violations against Palestinian journalists. Women journalists in detention are routinely threatened with rape by the Israeli security forces, she said. 

One journalist who spoke to Global Voices, Sojoud Aasi, was detained in October. Two months pregnant at the time, she was manhandled and strip searched multiple times “in a very humiliating manner,” she said. “I was denied the right to change my clothes, get my medications, or even go to the bathroom.”

Israeli forces also threatened to hurt her seven-year old daughter and kill her husband. Her husband, also a journalist, is currently in detention. “He is subjected to severe torture, while being deprived of his most basic rights, like other detainees in Israeli prisons,” she said.

Rights organizations have decried the use of torture and other forms of inhuman treatment in Israeli prisons, while UN experts have “expressed alarm over credible allegations of egregious human rights violations” against Palestinian women and girls, including sexual assault.

Another journalist, Bushra al-Tawil, has been arrested five times for her work, which is focused on Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Nofal said. Most recently, al-Tawil was arrested in March, and remains under administrative detention to date. According to eyewitnesses, she was beaten by the Israeli intelligence forces in her home as she was being detained. 

A third journalist, Asmaa Harish, has been under house arrest for the last six months. “The Israeli forces have banned her from using social media or even making calls,” Nofal added.   

In addition to detentions, West Bank journalists also face restrictions on freedom of movement and outright violence by the Israeli army and armed settlers. 

Mohammed Samir Abed, a correspondent for Al Quds News Network, and his six colleagues experienced this violence first hand when they came under direct fire from the Israeli army on January 4. They had been documenting clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian factions in Sir, a town south of Jenin. 

After the clashes concluded, “we wanted to leave and all of a sudden there were gunshots…we were shot at directly,” despite wearing their press jackets, Abed told Global Voices. Footage he captured during the incident shows him and his colleagues sheltering from gunfire fired from Israeli military vehicles nearby. 

Jihad Barakat, a Ramallah-based reporter for Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, has also been shot at multiple times while reporting. “At any moment a soldier might forbid you from photographing…or fire tear gas or rubber bullets,” he told Global Voices. At other times they are live bullets, as in the case of the 2022 killing of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Aqleh by the Israeli army in Jenin.

Every day, journalists in the West Bank risk their lives and experience a myriad of violations to document and expose the Israeli occupation — with a significant psychological toll. 

Restrictions on freedom of movement

In addition to violence at the hands of the Israeli army, West Bank journalists are confronted with settler violence. “There are a lot of settler attacks all across the West Bank. We have difficulties moving from one place to another, it's very dangerous,” Nofal said.

Since the war started, there have been over 600 settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank, according to the UN. Nine people have been killed during these attacks, in addition to the nearly 400 people killed by the Israeli army as of early March.

Since October, the Israeli government has issued over 100,000 gun licenses — with the highest rates of arms among illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The government has weighed arming certain West Bank settlements with anti-tank missiles

Journalists’ freedom of movement has also been heavily restricted by the establishment of dozens of new checkpoints and confinement of entire villages since the war broke out. “Now I can’t move from Jenin to Nablus because of the presence of checkpoints,” Abed said. The two West Bank cities are 40 kilometers away from each other.

When passing through checkpoints, Abed uses his personal ID rather than his journalist ID, which is issued by the Palestinian Authority — the nominal governing body in the West Bank. He does so “out of fear of being delayed, or detained at any moment for covering the crimes of the occupation.” 

In 2000, Israeli press cards were definitively denied for West Bank journalists. Without them, it takes them significantly longer to pass through Israeli checkpoints. Checkpoints can take hours to pass through to travel small distances.

Once on site, journalists’ movement is heavily restricted by the Israeli army. “Army vehicles come in close proximity to obstruct us,” Abed said, showing a video of an armored vehicle honking and rolling towards him and his colleagues in Jenin last December. 

Israel has also sent a clear deterrent message to journalists through past and recent killings of Palestinian journalists, both in the West Bank and in Gaza.

Psychological toll

While there has been a sharp uptick in attacks on journalists during the war, “violations against Palestinian journalists are a continuation, not a result of October 7,” Walid Batrawi, a journalist from Ramallah who now serves on the board of the International Press Institute, told Global Voices. 

In 2022, the Israeli army and security forces committed at least 479 violations against journalists.

Although these crimes are well documented by local and international bodies, impunity prevails. “When the soldier who shot Shireen Abu Aqleh was identified, he evaded punishment, which means everything will repeat itself,” Batrawi explained.

In the absence of the rule of law, fear is rampant. “There is perpetual fear and uncertainty as to if he puts ‘press’ on his car, is he protected or a target?,” he added. The International Committee to Protect Journalists is investigating the intentional targeting and murder of a dozen journalists by the Israeli army. 

Israeli forces use fear and intimidation to “silence every free voice in the West Bank,” Aasi said. “It’s part of an attempt to impose self-censorship.”

“You might be the target of the next bullet, this is something that stays with Palestinian journalists. When I leave the house, I’m counting on the fact I may not return,” Abed said.

Collective punishment is also a source of widespread fear. “Not only journalists have become targets, their families have become targets. This impacts every Palestinian journalist,” Barakat said. 

The psychological costs are high. “I’m afraid I won’t get home to my three children. I’m afraid something will happen, I feel I can’t control my life,” said Nofal. “Our trauma affects our social lives, our relationships with the people around us.” 

But with time, death becomes normalized. “Every day I photograph funerals. I’ve started to fear that if I lose someone I love I won’t feel the loss, it has become something normal for me,” Abed said. 

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